Former White House Cybersecurity Czar Calls For Security Action

Howard Schmidt declines to comment on reported U.S. involvement in Stuxnet, but warns about 'cascading' effect of targeted malware

GARTNER SECURITY & RISK MANAGEMENT SUMMIT -- National Harbor, Md. -- The White House's first cybersecurity coordinator yesterday said it's time for the federal government to begin implementing its blueprints for secure identities and its international strategy for cybersecurity, efforts that he spearheaded during his term.

"We need to start executing" our strategies, the recently retired Howard Schmidt said yesterday in an interview after his keynote address here. "We can't be going back and creating yet another strategy."

Schmidt, 62, resigned his post late last month for retirement after two-and-half years on the job. The former president and CEO of the international nonprofit Information Security Forum and chief information security officer at eBay and Microsoft led the Obama administration's historic international strategy for cybersecurity and cyberspace, as well as the National Strategy for Trusted Identities In Cyberspace (NSTIC). Michael Daniel, 41, former chief of the White House budget office's intelligence branch, was named Schmidt's successor.

Schmidt did not address reports that the U.S. and Israel were behind Stuxnet and Flame in his keynote talk, and he later declined to comment specifically about the reports during a question-and-answer session. "I can't talk about whether it's true or not true," Schmidt told attendees here. "But I can say you have to be very cautious about what goes on there because it can have very dramatic cascading effects."

In an interview with Dark Reading afterward, Schmidt didn't refer directly to Stuxnet or Flame, but elaborated on his earlier comment about the "cascading" affect of targeted malware attacks against nations: "One of the big challenges out there is someone says this is the way to go and it saves lives, [for example]. But when you look at the overall effect ... you've got to have a dialog about that," he said, referring to governments and private industry alike.

Targeted malware of all types can be reverse-engineered, he said, so the original creator doesn't truly have full control over it. "Every time there's new malware, thousands of researchers say, 'I can reverse-engineer it.' It gets a lot of exposure really quickly," Schmidt said.

He said it's important to consider the potential fallout of such attacks and to consider "alternatives."

Whatever the reason for the leak to The New York Times on how President Obama signed off on ramping up targeted malware attacks aimed at disarming Iran's nuclear facilities, which had begun during the Bush administration, some security experts say it could backfire. "Now this can be anybody" unleashing these types of attacks, says Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy for Imperva. "I still think it was a bad idea to announce it ... I don't know if it was leaked."

[ Researchers say Flame predates Stuxnet and shares some source code with first-generation version of Stuxnet. See 'Conclusive' Link Found Between Stuxnet And Flame. ]

Schmidt, meanwhile, had high praise for his successor, Daniel, whose federal budget and cybersecurity experience could help propel the administration's cybersecurity plans to the next phase. "The guy is brilliant," Schmidt said. His hope is that Daniel will keep the newly launched security programs moving forward.

He also urged organizations to flex their procurement muscles to get better and more secure software and products. "Use the power of procurement," he said. Require vendors to perform source code analysis and other secure software best practices as part of the requirements for a purchase. Schmidt also reiterated that security pros need to have a line to top executives. "[Security] has to come from the top," he said.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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